Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Teddy Moronic!

Ever since the turn of the millennium, I've spent the first few weeks of each New Year in this hard core retro-futuristic mode. In 2008, I’ve been listening to stuff like The Shamen, Information Society, and Prince (which, admittedly, is less futuristic and more late-renaissance era on Neptune, but still), I picked up a short-stack of vintage sci-fi novels from The Attic Bookstore (Downbelow Station, Babel 17, and Quest Crosstime), and I’ve been screwing around with my beat-up Rubik’s Cube. Perpetually. Like an obsessive-compulsive street person. (What makes a Rubik’s Cube – that ubiquitous artifact of 1980’s pop-culture - futuristic, you ask? It has to do with re-wiring my brain. Either that, or simple geometry, to me, represents the pinnacle of scientific achievement.)

I go through this for two reasons. One: because I’m still pissed off that I’m expected to live without all the nifty gadgets I was promised in movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (though not having a Terminator-style nuclear winter in 1997 was nice. It all balances out, I guess.) And B: because, like all sci-fi geeks, I occasionally imagine myself as an android, able to be re-programmed and upgraded at will. A distinct advantage, when it comes to New Years Resolutions.

This year’s reboot/upgrade - “Ted 2.0”, if you will - is going pretty well. Along with the usual working out and being generally healthy, I’m de-fragging the ol’ ADHD addled noggin in an effort to speed up the processing. The thing is, I got a new freelance gig – for a nightlife and entertainment website called Metromix – so I’m going to need my cranium operating at full capacity.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m absolutely thrilled for the opportunity. But sometimes, I wish I could just take a pill, or step into the transmorgrifier, or fall out of an airplane and be rebuilt – faster, better, stronger – in order to beat the hell out of whoever it was that said “all great achievements require time”.

The other night, in the midst of my slow-as-molasses life-turnaround, I came across “Johnny Mnemonic” on TV. Now, it doesn’t matter what else I have going on; which of my kids needs attention, how many library books I have to finish reading in order to return them on time, or how long it’s been since my last blog entry… if Johnny Mnemonic is on the tube, it calls to me – demanding to be watched.

Most William Gibson fans loathe this film. And no doubt, there’s much to dislike, from one of the main characters being tossed from the original short story, to the fact that the whole thing plays like one of those early nineties, straight to video Terminator rip-offs, starring Don “The Dragon” Wilson and directed by Albert Pyun.

But me, almost as much as William Gibson, I love straight-to-video Terminator rip-offs. In theory, anyway: to actually adjust the tracking on your VCR in order to sit and watch one can be duller than waiting to grow tits - but the boxes, man, the boxes for those things were amazing, with the fourth and fifth rate Dolph Lundgren wannabes in trench coats and mirror shades, wielding their bad ass firearm, alongside some computer font non-sequitur, like “In the year 1999, there is no law… now, HE will whoop ass…” I can’t tell you how many times I got suckered into watching a movie based on one of those boxes. While Johnny Mnemonic may not be the film you would expect from one of today’s best loved science fiction authors and contemporary artist Robert Longo, it absolutely delivers on the promise of those boxes.

In The Future ™, data too “hot” to be transmitted over the internets (where it’s susceptible to hackers and such) is entrusted to information couriers, who store data using cybernetic implants in their brains. Johnny is played by Keanu Reeves, whose trademark acting technique (reciting all the dialogue in a zombie-like mono/bari/metronome) works for a character who’s supposed to have undergone a lobotomy for professional reasons.

As a protagonist in a mid-1990’s movie, Johnny is tapped for the proverbial “one last job” by slimeball Udo Keir, who promises him that once he’s finished, he can have his brain fixed (restoring his long term memory, in the process). Problem is, the data is way over Johnny’s storage capacity, meaning he’s got to get it out of head before it sizzles his synapses. Add to that the fact that the info has been stolen by the Yakuza, and the film drops into neo-noir freefall.

“Johnny Mnemonic” has everything: transvestite hit men, dolphin hackers, TV worshiping cyborg evangelists (played by the REAL Dolph Lundgren – no low budget short-cuts here, people!), and Henry Rollins looking like he’s about to explode, as he strains to deliver his lines without shouting them like a performance art monologue. And since Gibson’s work is regularly read and enjoyed by dedicated readers who nonetheless have no idea what *&@# happened in the book they just finished, the film uses Ice T as a Greek Chorus of sorts, to guide the audience through some of the more esoteric high tech plot points. Ice T is to expository dialogue what Irvine Welsh is to time-share seminars - which is to say, “confoundingly verbose overkill” - but it is fun to watch the one-time Cop Killa attempt to keep a straight face while talking to a dolphin in a swim cap.

"What? My hair gets in my eyes! I am a MAMMAL, you know..."

All snark aside, “Johnny” is better than The Matrix (yes, it is.) in the same way that Terminator 3 is better than T2 (yep, yes, it is): clever without being pretentious, and never dull. No one is ever deemed “The One”, or “chosen”, or destined to do anything. Like Gibson’s books, it’s just a bunch of really jacked up stuff that happens to some unfortunate folks who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Best of all, the film captures Gibson’s paranoia about / fascination with the information age. It’s a sentiment I can relate to, as I try to prioritize the constant stream of data in my life, deciding what I can keep, and what to delete, from my overcrowded brain.

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